I don’t know if I’m going to be able to explain why I liked this book so much. I recently picked it up for free as part of Tor.com’s eBook of the Month Club. I believe they offered it in September. I only read the first couple sentences of the synopsis, and it didn’t sound particularly appealing to me, but I thought I’d give it a try anyway. I vaguely remember liking Jo Walton’s book Farthing reasonably well when I read it several years ago.
The general story in The Just City is that various people across time each prayed to the goddess Athene for a place like the city described in Plato’s The Republic. Athene decided to answer their prayers and whisked them all together at a specific time on a remote island where she helps them build a city based on Plato’s principles. The people involved range from ancient philosophers to intelligent women from more recent times who were frustrated by their lack of choices in life. After being built, the city is populated with over 10,000 children around the age of ten. Athene’s brother Apollo also plays a major role in the story. The story opens up with Apollo experiencing a human concept that baffles him. After seeking advice, he decides to live a mortal life in order to improve his understanding, and chooses to be born as a child who will eventually be brought to this Just City to live. There’s another plot line introduced a bit later into the book, but I think it’s better left as a surprise for other first-time readers.
So, as you can probably guess, there’s a lot of ancient Greek mythology and philosophy in this book. I’m not a mythology buff, but this wasn’t one of those books where the author tries to find a way to mention every god ever heard of. Only Apollo and Athene played major roles in the story, and a few others were mentioned sparingly. Likewise, the philosophy was presented in an accessible way. I took an introductory philosophy course in university, and it was actually one of my favorite non-degree-related courses, but we barely scratched the surface of the subject and it certainly wasn’t something I wanted to make a career out of. Some of the things mentioned in this book were vaguely familiar, but most of it was new to me. However, I was never confused and there were never any info dumps. The author conveyed the necessary information in such an entertaining way that I was barely aware she was doing it.
This is a very character-driven story, focusing on three main characters. One of the characters is Apollo. Another is Maia, one of the people who prays to Athene and is brought to help build the city. The third character is Simmea, one of the children brought to the city. I really enjoyed all the characters, especially Apollo. Each chapter is told from the first-person perspective of one of the characters. Even though the chapters were clearly labeled with the character’s name, I did have difficulty sometimes because two of the main characters were often together in both of their sets of chapters. Sometimes I forgot whose perspective I was reading from, especially if I took a break from reading in the middle of the chapter. It never took long before something rang false with the perspective I thought I was in and I’d get straightened back out, but it was a little jarring sometimes.
Plot-wise, there really isn’t a lot of action in this story. It’s quite heavy on dialogue, and has some serious discussions about things like consent, self-determination, self-awareness, trust, and truth. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people found the book quite boring, but for some reason this wasn’t the case for me. I was interested from the beginning, and I only occasionally began to feel a little restless as I neared the end. There were a few things I found questionable in terms of characters having more knowledge than I thought seemed likely and there were some things that felt a bit too convenient. Still, it isn’t too often that I inhale a book within a day and a half, so clearly I enjoyed it.
This is not a stand-alone story. It’s the first book in a trilogy, and nothing is really wrapped up at the end. The ending was fairly dramatic, actually, and I suspect there may be quite a bit more action in the second book. I plan to find out very soon. :)